Formatting Résumés and Curricula Vitae
This guide deals primarily with the visual design of résumés, not the issues involved in deciding content. For information on content choices, read our Résumé Writing guide.
When designing a résumé you should focus on readability. What this means in practical terms is that the design should be simple and unobtrusive. Headings should be obvious and meaningful. The text should be in a carefully selected font, emphasizing a clean, crisp appearance.
There are several reasons your design choices are limited:
- Résumés are now sent via email to many employers.
- Even paper résumés are scanned into databases.
- Employers have expectations of what a résumé should be.
Because résumés are so important, we have a lot of specific tips for their design. We realize guidelines can be ignored, but we have checked a lot of books, websites, and even real humans who hire people during the compiling of this list. Our basic suggestions for design include:
- Limit fonts to Times New Roman and Arial if sending a Word or other non-PDF document.
- Avoid fonts smaller than 12-point, except in the contact line. Never, for any reason, go smaller than 10-point text.
- Use headings that are larger and distinct from other text.
- Consider your name the “title” of the résumé. Generally it should
not be in all caps.
- Limit the amount of space used by name and address.
- Set the margins on left, right, and bottom to no less than 1 inch (6 picas, 2.5 cm).
- Consider table-based layouts are hard to export for Web-based or email text-only résumé submissions.
- Warning: Tabs do not function properly within tables, making text alignment a challenge unless you create complex tables.
- Use tabs and margin settings properly. Never align text using spaces.
- Use “em/en dashes” instead of the simple dash/minus sign when appropriate.
- Space bullets, even inline, with at least an en-space on either side. An em-space is even better.
Unless you are applying for a job in the creative arts, limit yourself to the basic sans-serif and serif fonts. For sans-serif headings, use typefaces like Arial and Helvetica. For serif text and headings, use typefaces in the Times families. We strongly encourage you to use Times for the text of a résumé because studies have shown it is easier to read at smaller sizes than faces like Arial. Also, if your résumé is scanned into a database, optical character recognition (OCR) works better with Times because the letters are more distinct.
If you do select any other faces, limit yourself to ones that are closely related to Arial and Times. Here is one reason not to experiment too much, though: companies accepting résumés via email might not have the same fonts installed as you do. Apple and Microsoft have agreed to include Arial and Times New Roman with their operating systems. Other fonts, like the elegant faces Gil Sans and Palatino, are not on every computer system (even if we wish they were).
If you are certain your résumé will stay in its original form, even if sent electronically, then we definitely prefer some of the alternatives to Arial and Times. Using Adobe’s Acrobat file format (the ubiquitous PDF) ensures your electronic résumé looks the same on screen as it will on paper. Microsoft Word and most other programs do not include fonts in their document files, often resulting in font substitution that is unappealing.
Page Setup and Paper
Do not experiment with the basic conventions of printed résumé formatting. Maintain one-inch margins and a portrait (“tall”) layout. The paper should be a light color such as white, cream, beige, or gray. You can buy cotton-fiber résumé paper at most office supply stores. These papers are slightly heavier than standard “20 bond weight” paper. Look for 24 or 28 bond paper. The heavier paper not only looks better, but also is more durable.
Many books, and even Microsoft’s Word templates, use tables to align elements of résumés. This is fine if the document will only be distributed on paper. Unfortunately, it can cause problems if you email the document or if you are asked to convert the file to another data format such as plain text.
To format a portable and reusable résumé, use tabs, indents, and margin settings to align various elements of the document. Also, you should use the styles feature of most word processors and design applications. Styles ensure your résumé elements will be consistent. For more information, consult your application’s online help and study any templates provided.
Tables have a habit of converting elements to a vertical “stack” when exporting documents. If you are asked to provide a résumé in plain text format, you should save it as text and then open the file to see what has changed. You will probably need to correct any elements that were placed using tables.
Special Characters and Symbols
Special characters, such as the accented e (é) in résumé can be a problem when sending files. Bullet points and other symbols can also be problematic. You should always “test send” a résumé document to yourself, both in its “native” format, such as Microsoft Word, and as plain text.
You can and should use special typographical symbols for printed résumés. For example, use the en-dash or em-dash (–, —) between dates. These dashes are thinner and longer than the hyphen/minus sign usually substituting for proper dashes. The standard used to be no spaces on either side of a dash, but magazines and newspapers have started to put spaces on both sides of dashes to improve readability. We like the spacing.
Bullet points should be simple and reasonable in size. Always have a gap separating the bullet from text. Text should not wrap under the bullet point, but should align with other text.
There are several ways to classify résumé designs. The following sections describe basic classifications based on the organization style of the résumé. You will notice that electronic designs are presented as their own style, primarily because space is less of an issue.
The most common résumé format is a reverse chronology of education and work experiences. Most chronological résumés are organized in the following sections:
- Work Experience
- Specialized Skills
- Professional Awards
There is no obligation to adhering to this order for your sections. You might place awards ahead of work experience if you have received national awards likely to impress a reader. It is also common to include military service between education and work experience, but some people choose to include the military within the work experience section.
Skills and Knowledge
The skills and knowledge format is used by most students and others with limited work experience. In the skills résumé, internships and volunteer work often replace job experience. Also, it is okay to include any academic organizations. Employers understand that most students will not have three major employers and a Pulitzer Prize before graduation.
- Academic Awards
- Academic Organizations
- Specialized Skills
- Internships and Volunteerism
- Work Experience
Use a functional résumé when you need to highlight particular work experience and skills instead of the order in which you held positions. In a functional résumé, headings are job titles or categories. For example, headings might be “Retail Management” or “Software Development” with related posts under those headings. It is also common to compose a short explanation under each heading. Limit the explanation to no more than four lines of text.
A creative résumé is generally a creative product that includes the items found in more conservative designs. A creative résumé might be illustrated, hand lettered, or even in the form of cross-stitch. The creative résumé is similar to a portfolio — it is meant to demonstrate a skill the employer seeks. You’d never send a comic book to an accounting firm, but you might send one to Marvel Entertainment.
An electronic résumé is different primarily in that length is less of a concern, though that does not mean you should not be concise. What the electronic résumé permits is a complete document. Too often, the one-page résumé some employers expect results in the deletion of valuable information that might have appealed to some readers.
With an electronic résumé, you should always include two sections omitted from many print résumés: skills and interests. Your interests might be similar to those of the person reading the document. More likely, your skills and interests will include keywords that lead to your résumé being found during a database search.
In your skills section, use both general and specific keywords, even if it seems redundant to you. Don’t mention word processing without naming specific applications, for example. You never know what might stand out to the person screening résumés or the search terms used to skim a job applicant database.
Résumé Draft Checklist
- Is the design easy to read and use?
- Can a reader find information quickly and easily?
- Are headings obvious and standard?
- Use consistent fonts for headings and text.
- No text smaller than 10 points.
- Are there any formatting problems when printed?
- Is contact information distinct and at the top?
- Did you remember to include an email address?
- If you include a Web page, is it appropriate?
- Did you include all honors and awards?
- Have you explained any that might not be obvious?
- Did you select an organization that emphasizes your strengths?
- Education does not have to come first.
- Would adding a Skills section clarify who you are?
- Are bullet points effective?
- Do bullets follow parallel structure?
- Do items start with active verbs?
- Have you avoided “I” in the text?
- Are all points concise?
- Did you really edit the résumé?
- Do not let a single spelling error slip through!
- Check every detail.
The Curriculum Vitae